The one month long current political mess demands rectification in presumptions on two important matters that involve the country’s Constitution. One is the importance of the majority power in the Parliament and the other being the crossover by the people’s representatives from one party to another.
Majority in Parliament is not a matter of ego or ritual; rather it is a matter of practicality. If we are to put it in simple terms, a ruling party must have a relatively consistent majority power to adopt Bills and motions it presents in the Parliament or any other council representing the people, such as the provincial councils. It is simple logic that no party can run a country or a province or a local area otherwise.
In countries like India and Pakistan, there is a procedure to take a confidence vote after every regime change and every major cross over by the Parliamentarians or members of State Legislative Assemblies. We might have solved our present crisis on November 14 itself, the first day the Parliament met after the recent regime change, had we followed that procedure here as well. It is high time the leaders of the political parties consider having such a procedure here.
There was a serious debate in the media over the ethicality and the legality of cross over when former ministers Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and some others practically crossed over to the Opposition during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure. Since there was no bribe involved in their parting with the United National Party (UNP) then, two important matters- the mandate the defectors received from the people and the conscience of them- were the points under the debate.
On the one hand, the second Republican Constitution of 1978 gives power to the secretary of a political party to deprive a member of his party of his Parliament membership, in case of a cross over or dissension by the member. Also it was argued that defectors, due to their defection or dissension go against the mandate they received from the people at the election they were elected. On the other hand, the conscience of individual Parliamentarians and the public interest were also strongly came up during the debate, as President Premadasa was accused of highhandedness and cruelty in the crackdown of the second insurrection of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which then acted in the guise of Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya(DJV).
However, all these ethical points were suppressed with another important ethical point- natural justice- by verdicts of the Supreme Court in two cases on crossovers in 2000 and 2006. The first case was filed by Sarath Amnugama and four others against their expulsion from the UNP following their meeting with President Chandrika Kumaratunga on the eve of the 1999 Presidential election. The other one was filed by Ameer Ali against Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the verdict of it said “The Court may not determine an expulsion to be valid unless there are overwhelming reasons warranting such decision and … such a decision will be competent only in the most exceptional circumstances and in furtherance of the public good…”
Despite these ruling having not invalidated the Articles of the Constitution that prevents crossovers, political parties seem to have been hesitant now to take action against their members who cross over to other parties. Thus, 12 MPs crossed over to the UNP from the People’s Alliance (PA) government in 2001, compelling President Kumaratunga to dissolve the government and 17 MPs of the UNP including Karu Jayasuriya crossed over to the UPFA in 2007 without being deprived of their Parliamentary seat. Following the 2010 General election a chain of crossovers facilitated the Mahinda Rajapaksa-government to make up the two thirds of power in the House to bring in the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.
In all these instances, it was alleged that instead of “public good” or conscience, money played a tremendous role as a stimulus to crossover, and it is still the case. In the absence of a barometer to identify whether it is the conscience or the money that prompts a people’s representative to cross over from one party to another, the membership of the august legislature has become a commodity that could be auctioned. Sadly, there is no serious debate on the issue as the society has not taken it seriously.